We Interrupt Your Regular Broadcast To Bring You A Rant About Online Freedoms

Australians will be unable to opt-out of the government’s pending Internet content filtering scheme, and will instead be placed on a watered-down blacklist, experts say.

Under the government’s $125.8 million Plan for Cyber-Safety, users can switch between two blacklists which block content inappropriate for children, and a separate list which blocks illegal material.

Pundits say consumers have been lulled into believing the opt-out proviso would remove content filtering altogether.

First up, I posted last night a rant on my regular blog in which I talk (rant) about the difference between (il)legality and (im)morality, special focus on the likely treatment of fanart and fanfiction. Don’t go over there if you don’t want to know what I read online when I’m not reading medieval blogs.

Secondly, I find this deeply ironic, after Australians and the Australian government have spoken out against the Chinese government’s program of internet censorship. A few months ago, all the Australian papers were cheering for the journalists who snuck in software which can breach the Great Firewall of China. I wonder if the same software will work here?

Moreover, I’m concerned about the cost versus the likelihood of this being effective. I assume the adult firewall will be directed against child pornography, which no one is going to argue is a good *purpose*. It might also be directed against music and movie piracy. I wonder how likely is this to work? Your average person has a DVD burner in their house and a video store card, and can build up an impressive store of pirated goods that way. And I don’t know much about peer-to-peer software, but I’m under the impression that it’s constantly flexible: if you block one sort of program, someone will make a new one, and continue circulating pirated MP3s or illegal pornography according to their tastes. Websites, too, are flexible: the level of accuracy required to filter only those sites containing illegal material, and to hunt them down again when they pop up in new places with different keywords, requires either an awful lot of time and money (which no government is rolling in right now), or will be a blanket firewall based on ‘bad’ keywords, as with regular netnanny software.

Let’s think about that for a minute. If you put the entire country under a firewall which is designed to block, say, child porn, you’re probably going to block keywords like ‘paedophilia’ and ‘child abuse’, as well as the badly-spelled google search strings which show up on this blog every time I make a post which mentions teenagers. Yes, apparently my medieval blog has keywords which google thinks relate to child porn requests. A keyword-based filtering system might therefore block The Naked Philologist.1

Keyword-based filtering also has a history of blocking political activist and survivor support webpages which list things like ‘abuse’ as their site keywords. I have a livejournal account: I was around for Strikeout, a spate of account deletions in 07 aimed at removing unsuitable accounts and communities, which removed, along with slews of fanfic communities, a literary discussion group relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, and a swathe of survivor support groups for victims of child abuse and sexual assault AND recovery support groups for those who had been convicted of sex crimes.

The Australian government is *not telling* us on what basis it will be filtering sites. They’re not telling us how they will sift illegal material from legal: I’m assuming it will be keyword based, because anything else will be ridiculously expensive and need constant updating. Here’s what bugs me: keyword based filtering blocks harmless and positive content in the effort to screen unwanted content. I don’t want a government taskforce somewhere deciding what keywords I can and can’t get complete google returns for.

Moving even further into conjecture, since we don’t have any hard facts yet about how the filtering will be effected: what happens to researches who want to study illegal practices, or legal and ethical grey areas?

A friend of mine in the end did *not* submit a thesis proposal, because her own idea squicked her out too much, but she was going to do a historical survey of the construction of childhood and the sexualisation of children. She was going to look at whether or not the supposed sexualisation of late 20th/21st century teens and preeteens in pop culture does in fact correspond to a rise in child pornography, or qualitive changes in the representation of youth in pornography. In the end, she decided she didn’t want to have to view a historical survey of that sort of thing, and did something else instead. I think this research would be worth doing, although you’d have to be a tough cookie to do it. In order to do it, at the moment, you’d have to get government clearance to view illegal content, lest you be detected and arrested by the relevant police taskforce for that sort of thing.

If a total ban is put on illegal content provided by Australian ISPs, will we have to get government clearance to write a thesis on music piracy and its impact on the recording industry? If I wanted to research piracy and pirate culture, I’d need to see and use pirating sites and software.

Will Catherine Driscoll, the world’s leading expert on Potter fandom, have to get government clearance to access her research material? Changes to British law recently mean that it’s now illegal to own or create erotic Potter (or insert other underage fantasy character) fanart there, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that fanart sites could be banned in Australia soon.

Let’s say you could get clearance to view illegal content for research purposes. But your ISP is blocking all the sites. The most efficient way to get you access would be for your university to have access to an unfiltered stream, and the power to log you into it.

If this measure goes through parliament- and it has bipartisan support- then either there will be information which no one can access from Australia (except that talented hacks will know how to get around it and access the illegal material we’re supposed to be protected from in the first place), or we’ll have information which no one except a government approved elite can access. Anyone want to take bets on how long it’ll be before that gets abused?

This Rant is now concluded. Thank you for listening, and please cherish your freedom of net access while you have it.


1. Yes, I know that’s unlikely. I know the security level will probably not be that severe. But from the limited information we’re getting, it *could* be; and at any security level, there will be innocent sites caught and illegal ones which slip through. That’s the way the intertubes work.


3 Responses to “We Interrupt Your Regular Broadcast To Bring You A Rant About Online Freedoms”

  1. goblinpaladin Says:

    I’d just like to point out that drawings, art or paintings of underage folk in sexualised situations is already technically illegal under Australian law. Or so I have been informed by people who know. The British changes apparently bring them into a line similar to us.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    huh, interesting. *shrugs* as well that I haven’t saved any potterporn pics, then.

  3. curly Says:

    I have just read about this and am outraged! If Australia goes down this path, the precedent will be set for other western liberal democracies to follow suit.
    I would fear even more for freedoms in “Big Brother” Britain, and elsewhere.

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